People who make banners for churches need to be very careful. There is one in a certain retreat house that says ‘Come apart’ . It means of course ‘come away to quiet place’; but could easily be read as suggesting we fall to bits. Retreat houses are often seen a bit like a spiritual hospital: in other words people often go there when they have already come apart and need to be put together again.
Well, things have been certainly falling apart in the world around us. Nothing new in that I suppose. But just this last week we’ve seen Nôtre Dame cathedral in flames; the frightening documentary by David Attenborough about the future of our planet, and the streets of London blocked in protest against climate change; and horrifically, on the eve of Good Friday, violence and murder again on the streets of Northern Ireland.* To say nothing about the tensions in the Middle East and Africa, or the stalemate over Brexit, or the rise in extreme right-wing populism everywhere from Italy to the United States.
And maybe all that is just the background noise to what is going on in our own lives. We might feel we are falling apart physically, with health problems. Or with relationships, family tensions or struggles at work or whatever. Or just simply overwhelmed with stress and pressures and the sense that we could fall apart at any moment.
That is just what we need. But not Easter as an escape from all that; not a couple of days when we can enjoy the nice weather and gorge on chocolate. Let’s do that of course, but not kid ourselves that it’s all Easter is about.
‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalen came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.’
There are at least three women called Mary in the gospel accounts of this season. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus, of course, who for many years had ‘pondered in her heart’ the unimaginable mystery of Jesus, first in her womb, and then in her home, and to whom Jesus handed over his best friend John and by implication the whole church. There is Mary the sister of Martha, who had sat at Jesus’s feet in rapt attention, and (according to St John at least) had anointed his feet with precious ointment in anticipation of his burial. And then there is Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalen, who was the first to see the empty tomb and to witness the resurrection. And while the men were rushing around in panic, she stayed. At first to weep, then to recognise the risen Christ.
All three Marys could have ‘come apart’; they could have been overwhelmed by the pressures and responsibilities of life. But they saw beyond all that. They had insight and vision, and stayed faithful while the men blustered or panicked. Judas thinking his hero had betrayed the revolution and so betraying him in turn; Peter terrified of being associated with the rebel leader and denying his connection; all the other disciples who ran away at the time of the crucifixion, leading only John to stand there at the foot of the cross along with Mary the blessed Mother.
And Mary Magdalen stood outside the tomb, weeping. Everything had fallen apart, but something kept her there. And it was when she saw the risen Lord (who she mistook for the gardener) that it all began to come together again.
The world has come apart. The forces of death and hatred, the waste and crime and dysfunction, the sickness and disease, the poverty and hunger – the total mess that our world has become – all that landed on the shoulders of Jesus Christ and was put to death on the Cross. By his resurrection he has given notice to the devil’s troops to end their occupation of this world; his resurrection puts back together all the torn apart bits of the world. As we will pray shortly in the eucharistic prayer:
‘we give you thanks because Jesus Christ has won the victory. A new age has dawned, the long reign of sin is ended, a broken world is being renewed and humankind is once again made whole.’
We all come to church on Easter Day feeling to one extent or another that we are falling apart. Maybe some people have the quiet faith of the Marys (and of Julian of Norwich) that ‘all will be well.’ Others of us try to keep faith, and keep coming to church, despite wondering why. And maybe some of you don’t come to church all that often (or maybe this is your first time) and might be feeling a bit of a fraud or at least out of place.
But this is the place of restoration and healing. We are all in the same boat and all of us need healing, need our fallen-apartness put back together again. Jesus told us to break the bread and drink the wine ‘in remembrance’ of him. That doesn’t mean that we just think nice thoughts. It means that by his death and resurrection he has put back together the broken members of the world – he has re-membered the world in his body, And he calls us to be members of his Body, living our lives so that we put back together what is broken. So there is no distinction between devout regular worshippers or those who never give religion a thought; none between ‘respectable’ people or sinners… we have all ‘come apart’ in one way or another and the risen Jesus offers us the chance to be re-membered, to be made whole.
One of the saints of the early church, John Chrysostom (his name means ‘golden mouth’) preached a sermon that begins like this:
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
* If I’d heard the news before I preached this I would of course have mentioned the horrific massacres in Sri Lanka.